On Samuel Johnson, Sorley McLean and Talisker Bay

Talisker House on Skye lies at the end of a long descent through Glen Oraid, probably about 5 miles beyond the turning to Carbost.  The weather on the day we visited was miraculous: sunny with brilliant colours, and not that much wind. Unlike two hundred and forty-three years ago, when Dr Samuel Johnson complained that “The weather was now almost one continuous storm”.

You have to leave the car well before the house and walk down a track that leads to the bay past the house and its garden, The house is very striking and, most unusually for these parts, it’s surrounded by mature trees. The building seems to have changed very little and the garden was beautiful looked after. Johnson was clearly very taken by the house and its setting too, as well as the occupants. As he wrote on 28 September 1773: “We passed two days at Talisker very happily, both by the perfectness of the place, and elegance of our reception.”

Talisker House dates back to the early eighteenth century, but in 1780, a few years after Boswell and Johnson visited, a new front wing was added with a ground floor dining room and a drawing room above. The ornate plaster ceiling in the drawing was said to be original in the Listed Buildings description of 1971.

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We came by car, and then on foot, whereas on 23 September 1773, Dr Johnson and his travelling companion, James Boswell, left Dunvegan Castle to ride to Ullinish, and from there by boat to Talisker.

Even then the area had a reputation for making the best whisky on the island. A little aside here, Talisker Distillery would be built in Carbost in 1830, and fifty years after that another great writer, this time Robert Louis Stevenson (A Scotsman Returning from Abroad, 1880), listed this particular whisky among his favourite three: “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”

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Commenting in general on his impressions of Skye, Johnson remarked that “The hospitality of this remote region is like that of the golden age. We have found ourselves treated at every house as if we came to confer a benefit.”

Johnson and Boswell landed at Ferinlea, on Loch Harport, and then rode about five miles to Talisker where they stayed with Colonel John Macleod of Talisker and his wife Mary Maclean of Coll.

Sept. 23. We removed to Talisker a house occupied by Mr. Macleod, a Lieutenant colonel in the Dutch service. Talisker has been long in the hands of Gentlemen, and therefore has a garden well cultivated, and what is here very rare, is shaded by trees. A place where the imagination is more amused cannot easily be found. The Mountains about it are of great height, with waterfalls succeeding one another so fast, that as one ceases to be hearrd another begins; between the mountains there is a small valley extended to the sea, which is not afar off beating upon a coast of very difficult access.

IMG_1256The photo above was taken on the day we visited when the sea couldn’t have been calmer. But in September 1773 matters were different. Johnson wrote:

Two nights before our arrival two boats were driven upon this coast by the tempest, one of them had a pilot that knew the passage, the second followed, but a third missed the true course, and was driven forward with great danger of being forced into the great Ocean, but however gained at last some other Island. The crews crept to Talisker almost lifeless with wet, cold, fatigue and terrour, but the Lady took care of them. She is a woman of more than common qualifications; having travelled with her husband, she speaks four languages.”

What’s fascinating about this diary entry is that Johnson refers to Macleod’s wife, Mary Maclean of Coll, as being a notable linguist. This unexpected talent is surprising, but Johnson puts it down to travelling with her husband.

What four languages might these have been? They might well have included English and Gaelic (or Earse, as Johnson called it), and probably Dutch and French.  After fighting for the government during the Jacobite Rebellion, Macleod joined the Scots Brigade in Holland, where he rose to the rank of colonel. In his Life, James Boswell also agreed that John Macleod and his wife, “in consequence of having lived abroad, had introduced the ease and politeness of the continent into this rude region”.

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This is a really special corner of Skye and it was lovely to find that Sorley Maclean also wrote about Talisker Bay. Below is the English translation of Tràighean, thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library website (what a fantastic resource!). The basalt rocks of Preshal Mhor are visible in the photo above.

If we were in Talisker on the shore
where the great white mouth
opens between two hard jaws,
Rubha nan Clach and the Bioda Ruadh,
I would stand beside the sea
renewing love in my spirit
while the ocean was filling
Talisker bay forever:
I would stand there on the bareness of the shore
until Prishal bowed his stallion head.

There was no sign of white horses (whether on the hills or in the sea) when we were there – that must be a dramatic sight!  Below is the stack of Bioda Ruadh, at the south end of the bay, in fabulous sunlight.

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Writing to Macleod of Macleod as he waited for a boat to leave Skye, Johnson also expressed his gratitude to all those he had met on the island, and particularly to his steed:

“Boswell grows impatient, but the kind treatment which I find wherever I go makes me leave with some heaviness of heart an Island which I am not very like to see again. Having now gone as far as horses can carry us, we thankfully return them. My Steed will, I hope, be received with kindness; he has born me, heavy as I am, over ground both rough and steep with great fidelity…”

We didn’t have trusted horses, but we can share the sentiment of the heaviness of heart when we left and the kindness of the lovely people we met on the Winged Isle. I hope we will be very likely to see it again!

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
This entry was posted in Cultural history, reading and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Samuel Johnson, Sorley McLean and Talisker Bay

  1. Really enjoyed this: great post. Thank you.

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